Sombre Monsters – or, How to Blow Up a Country

Sergei NechayevHere’s an irony. The most hackneyed and overfamiliar historical questions, the ones for which pretty much every student has at some point had to pencil answers on a hot-from-the-copier test form – and the ones that are therefore probably regarded by said students as simple and entry-level and unserious – actually tend to be precisely the questions that are so titanic and broad that thousands of books can be written on them without any consensus ever being reached. So if you’ve ever been given four or five lines of whitespace to scribble an answer to What Effects Did The Industrial Revolution Have On Western Europe or What Factors Contributed To The Rise Of National Socialism In 1930s Germany or What Caused World War I, you have been badly served.[1]

Another question like this: What Caused The Russian Revolution. Or, more specifically if less elegantly, Why Was A Moderate-Liberal Reaction To The Excesses Of Autocracy Apparently So Totally Out Of The Question By The Time It Actually Became Politically Plausible?

What we’re talking about here is the unique radicalization of Russian politics that ran all the way through the nineteenth century[2] and culminated in the good old Revolution. We’re also talking about the parallel development of a much less unique and in fact downright French/American branch of liberalism in Russia that grew only in coughing unhelpful starts and never got far and was eventually destroyed when the Russian people traded in their centrally-planned oppressive authoritarian right-wing regime for a centrally-planned oppressive authoritarian left-wing regime.

What radicalized the Russians? And we’re not just talking about the dashing, cold-eyed, artfully mustachioed bomb-throwers and tract-penners and Raskolnikovian neurotics that the word “radical” probably brings to mind. We’re also talking about rulers like Alexander III, the royal pet of a career censor[3] named Konstantin Pobedonoststev, whose attitude towards words like “rights” and “freedom” and “independence” was that of a monk towards the Church of Satan. And whose miserably oppressive regime not only fed the rebellion that came after it but was fed by the rebellion that came before it. Russian society in the 19th century, particularly from the 1860s on[4], was a keening feedback loop of fear and frustration and drastic measures. Why?

What’s ironic about the 1860s being so fertile a decade for anti-government sentiment is that they opened with probably the single most liberal act in the history of Russian government: the emancipation of the serfs. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II officially released Russia’s twenty-three million serfs – roughly a third of the country’s population – from their bondage.

Couple things about the Emancipation. First, like a lot of good and admirable and breathtaking acts of politics, its motives weren’t remotely pure or even particularly idealistic: Alexander was admitting that the system was untenable, an opinion held openly by vast chunks of educated Russian society, and that prolonging it would bring economic ruin to Russia[5] and furthermore leave the country open for some kind of really nasty large-scale uprising[6].

Second, from the perspective of the serfs, the Emancipation wasn’t exactly ideal. Serfs were free, sure, but they were still living on someone else’s land, and Alexander’s decree didn’t hand them the deeds. What it handed them was debt: at least nine years, and almost certainly more, spent paying off the exact landowners from whom they’d supposedly just been liberated, for the land from which they’d supposedly just been detached. This seemed so contrary to the whole liberation thing that landowners themselves – the ones who’d just been given an exciting new source of income – wrote the tsar to complain that it was unfair[7]. And Russia’s political activists, lately enjoying the expanded freedom of speech that had come with Alexander II’s replacement of his militantly oppressive father Nicholas I[8], weren’t quiet about it either. Radical figureheads like Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, writing from Nicholas-induced exile, were unashamed to abandon their initial joy for disillusionment and dissent and lines like (this is Herzen’s paper, addressing the ex-serfs) “You hate the landlord, you hate the official … but you still trust the tsar and the priests. Don’t trust them! The tsar is with them and they are with him.” There were indeed cases of peasant rebellion or noncompliance[9], but for the most part exhortations like Herzen’s did much more to radicalize the literate, wealthy youth of Russia’s cities than to upset the peasants of its fields.

And yet those literate, wealthy youth were at the same time starting to think of people like Herzen – only a few years ago a serious, dangerous, enemy-of-the-state-level radical – as conciliatory fuddy-duddies. A lot of young men and women were going around calling themselves by a new word. The word was nihilist, a Russian inheritance from German philosophy by way of Ivan Turgenev’s short novel Fathers and Children[10], and a frightening and abhorrent word to the genteel dissenters of the 1840s. “Real people take on the character of their literary shadows,” Herzen wrote, and a little later, about N.G. Chernyshevsky’s What To Do?: “What a worthless generation whose aesthetics are satisfied by this.”

Not all of Turgenev’s “Fathers” were disgusted by their sons. The grandfather of Russian anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, was approached in Swiss exile by a young man named Sergei Nechayev, whose relationship to a book like What To Do? was that of a living, fire-breathing dragon to Gary Gygax. Nechayev was the first prominent professional revolutionary – the first man to ostentatiously and completely dedicate his life towards the instigation of revolution. He took the possibly very sensible position that it was a big enough job just to tear down the old order, and he couldn’t be expected to work out what exactly to put in its place. He was also – or at least reading about him now makes it pretty much impossible not to think of the word – a sociopath. If he wasn’t really a sociopath, he did sociopathic things, like: wheedling money and support out of Bakunin by representing himself as the head of an enormous and powerful nihilist organization that did not actually exist; mailing everyone in Russia whose address he could scrounge up really head-slappingly incriminating and inflammatory leaflets saying things like THE TIME TO RISE IS NOW! and talking in deliberately facile code about nonexistent plans to assassinate everyone in the government, so that all these people would get arrested and maybe tortured and thus maybe radicalized; pretending to get arrested and incarcerated in the supposedly impregnable Peter and Paul Fortress just so that he could later disseminate a letter from Switzerland opening with “Having escaped from the Peter and Paul Fortress…”; telling a girl named Vera Zasulich[11] he was in love with her basically just to intensify her ideological devotion; seducing Alexander Herzen’s daughter to gain control of Herzen’s influential paper The Bell; and writing a short essay called “Cathechism of a Revolutionist” which was full of lines like “The revolutionist is a person doomed”[12] and “Morality is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution” and “Night and day he must have but one thought… merciless destruction” and “The filthy social order can be split into several categories … the first category comprises those who must be condemned to death without delay” and of course “He must hate everyone and everything in the world with an equal hatred”.

Bakunin was impressed: this could be it. Nechayev’s long-range Machiavellianism was anathema to the older radicals who hadn’t even been able to handle it when Bazarov said he was a nihilist, but the younger Russians thought he was on to something. The professional revolutionary was an entirely amoral engine of destruction, and though it wasn’t necessarily apparent to anyone at the time, Nechayev’s plan wasn’t so much to lead or even directly incite a revolution as to create an atmosphere of so much fear and chaos and disorder and frustration that Russian society would just have to spontaneously combust.[13] This was not, however, an attitude particularly conducive to long-term friendships (“All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor must be suppressed in him”), and within eighteen months of their meeting, in July of 1870, Bakunin sent Nechayev out of Switzerland and started sending letters to everyone he knew with the basic thrust of Watch The Hell Out For Sergei Nechayev.

Which people did. In August of 1872, an acquaintance of Nechayev, a Polish revolutionary-organization secretary who also happened to be an agent of the Third Section, the Russian secret police[14], betrayed the radical to the Russians. Nechayev was imprisoned, for real this time, in the Peter and Paul Fortress. The main tone of Russian radicalism changed again: inspired by the slightly embarrassed Bakunin and by the populist[15] philosopher Pyotr Lavrov, Russia’s educated youth tried to foment revolution where it most needed to be fomented: amongst the peasants.

There’s a lot to admire and to be moved by in what ended up being called the To The People movement, in which a whole bunch of young educated urban Russians put on cheap clothes and went into the countryside to see if they could figure out how to pitch hay[16] in between delivering passionate speeches about economic oppression. And the peasants weren’t unresponsive; they usually nodded in agreement when the narodniki told them about their plight; pointed to the richer peasant farmers who were eagerly exploiting them[17]; reminded them of how badly they’d been screwed over by the not-that-emancipatory Emancipation; etc.. They just weren’t sure there was much they could do about it, and moreover they hadn’t yet abandoned the tsar-as-benefactor delusion outlined in note 7 sub, and were still convinced the tsar would get around to fixing everything soon enough, and kept responding to descriptions of ghastly Dickens-style labor-oppression in places like England by acknowledging that those places did indeed sound absolutely abhorrent and unlivable and then saying “We are so lucky to have a tsar!”

Whereupon the narodniki would bite their lips and try to keep it together but be unable to stop wondering what exactly they were doing here, in the middle of nowhere, getting up at dawn to milk things and try to evangelize socialism to people who refused to stop believing that Alexander II woke up every morning worried sick about the specific quality-of-life problems of every single one of them. So To The People, which began with a sunburst of compassionate, curious asceticism, and which was all tangled up in a really positive way with the most basic and least dogmatic tenets of Christianity, and which had little to do with Nechayevian apocalypse-now sociopathy and everything to do with educating and trying to help oppressed people, ended for most of its adherents in one of two ways, neither of them conducive to the future sanity and moderation of Russian dissent. One was extreme frustration. The other was arrest.

In 1877 and 1878, Russian political courts tried 525 young activists, many of them failed narodniki who had spent a few years languishing in prison. The trials were to proceed in accordance with Alexander II’s judicial reforms, part of the tsar’s general policy of “openness”[18], which allowed defendants to hire lawyers and give speeches and be tried in front of juries and enjoy all those good old Western judicial rights Russia had for so long considered decadent and dangerous. The idea was[19] not only that a consistent and accountable justice system would have all the usual effects of fairness and freedom, but that allowing the insane destructive godless narodniki to speak publicly about their ideas would neatly reveal to the Russian majority just how insane and destructive and godless these wackos were, and do the work of ideological assassination much better than shadowy state retribution ever could.

The problem with which was of course that the narodniki were not insane or destructive or godless but actually articulate and calm and (this was the worst part) devoutly Christian. So what the trial ended up being was a lot of good-looking[20] young people speaking articulately and calmly about their devout Christianity while a handful of panicked middle-aged judges tried loudly to shut them up. Which then gave them license to remain articulate and Christian while dialing down the calmness a little, and which meant that a speech like Pyotr Alexeyev’s, which was technically what the government had been looking for in that it contained lines like “The yoke of despotism, protected by soldiers’ bayonets, will be pounded to dust” and actually ended with Alexeyev throwing his fist in the air, nevertheless brought the house down and made the judges look like idiots and had to be excised from the trial’s official transcript even as it became a popular classic of revolutionary rhetoric. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was probably the verdict, which the jury delivered on the twenty-third of January, 1878, and in which over half of the defendants were acquitted.

The past few paragraphs have moved pretty quickly through a complicated couple of decades, so let’s pause here, on the evening of 1/23/78, and take in the scene. The gently critical radical writers of the 1830s and 40s have been replaced by a generation of young people equally influenced by the sociopathic anarchism of Nechayev and the Christian populism of Lavrov. Lavrovism has taken a major hit from the staid and frustrating disinterest of Russia’s masses in active protest. The jewel in Alexander II’s crown of moderate-liberal reform – the emancipation of the serfs – is despised by the extreme left because it doesn’t go far enough and by the extreme right because it goes at all; and Alexander’s other big project, the reformed judicial system, has just resulted in the acquittal of a couple hundred prominent enemies of the state, after a trial whose jury has basically acknowledged that said state is corrupt and oppressive. And tomorrow morning – having waited for the trial to end so as to avoid influencing the verdict – Vera Zasulich, the girl with whom Sergei Nechayev once declared himself in love, will walk into the office of the governor of St. Petersburg on the pretext of presenting a petition, and shoot him twice at close range.

Zasulich didn’t really need to give a reason for her attempted assassination. Anyone paying any attention at all would have been able to guess that it had something to do with Arkhip Petrovich Bogoliubov, an inmate at the House of Preliminary Detention in St. Petersburg, whom the governor, General Trepov, had ordered flogged for what looked to a lot of people like no reason. Trepov had been visiting the prison[21], had been incensed by the rule-flouting that was at the time a major fact of Preliminary Detention life, had possibly (and, if so, correctly) supposed this rule-flouting to be the product of a tacit ideological approval on the part of the prison’s guards and officials of the political prisoners they were supposed to revile, had gotten upset, and had lashed out at the first person who didn’t take off his hat the instant he saw the General. This was Bogoliubov, whom Trepov sent to be flogged, causing a seriously nasty prison riot and doing nothing to increase the government’s moral stock.[22]

All that was in July of 1877, and now six-odd months later Trepov was getting his Righteous Punishment. And here’s where things really fall apart: so unpopular had the Bogoliubov-flogging incident made Trepov that Zasulich, from the moment of her apprehension standing over Trepov’s body in the Governor’s office, was to the majority of Russian intellectual society a kind of saint. Young, soft-spoken, devout, pretty enough, a frustrated angel of righteousness Doing What She Had To Do. If she’d committed violence, she’d been driven to it – everyone had seen what happened to poor Bogoliubov. Beaten almost to death. And that was just for being a slow hat-doffer. For Trepov’s own crime, didn’t a couple of bullets seem fair?

And then Zasulich was given another one of those trials – another test-run of Alexander’s great reformed judiciary. And she went before a jury. And everyone watched. And Vera Zasulich – whom let’s not forget was not “suspected of” or “implicated in” or “strongly believed to be responsible for” the attempted assassination but had been apprehended two seconds after it happened – got off.

The shocking thing here wasn’t that the jury thought that Vera Zasulich wasn’t guilty. Obviously she was guilty. What the jury meant was that General Trepov was guiltier. And that the Russian government was guiltier, and that the tsar was too. And that the Russian judicial system – the impartial, shielded, honest judicial system Alexander II had hoped would demonstrate his great magnanimous enlightenment – was turning around and essentially saying that this was all a bunch of shit. Which had effects of comparable hugeness on both sides of the political spectrum: the right, represented by people like the (very, very aforementioned) Konstantin Pobedonostsev, took this as final proof that Alexander’s whole Be Nice To Them thing wasn’t working at all; the left, represented by people like Zasulich’s much harsher sister-in-arms Sofya Perovskaya, took it as a revelation. What got results wasn’t holding meetings or printing leaflets or putting on brown dresses and swinging scythes with the peasants. What got results was shooting people.

So they started shooting people. It’s a bit glib to single out Vera Zasulich’s two bullets as the ones that Changed Everything, that locked Russia into the weird horrible feedback loop that characterized the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. But it’s true that they injected into the system of Russian politics and culture a level of violence that it never got the chance to purge. In May of 1878 somebody killed Kiev’s Chief of Police; in August somebody stabbed to death General Mezentzev, the head of the Third Division. That same month the Russian government handed responsibility for all political cases over to the military courts. In February of ’79 a 20-year-old student named Leon Mirski shot the new Third Division chief, apparently because Mezentzev’s assassination had really thrilled Mirski’s girlfriend.[23]

Now that symbolic murder was on the table, the revolutionaries of the post-Zasulich era – many of whom, members of a group called Land and Liberty, had been defendants in the trial of the narodniki[24] – naturally started thinking about the biggest symbol Russia had. There were a handful of assassination attempts made on Alexander II around this time, some of them by people who frankly did not seem all that bright or even sane[25]. One of the serious ones, carried out by Land and Liberty’s successor organization Narodnaya volya, the People’s Will, involved this hellaciously complicated plan into the details of which neither your patience or mine probably permits we go – but suffice to say it involved renting a house in Odessa and pretending to be a family while digging a tunnel out of the basement towards a railroad track and laying mines there and the whole thing was absurdly hazardous and unpleasant and nearly killed everyone involved and then they blew up the wrong train.

In the meantime, an alarmed Alexander II created a new government organ called the Supreme Commission for the Maintenance of State Order and Public Peace, and placed at its head a war hero named Mikhail Loris-Melikov, who started ordering executions left and right but who was nevertheless way more liberal than his history and political circumstances led everyone to expect. His position was basically that while the revolutionaries’ tactics were abhorrent, they nevertheless had a point, and that it was in the government’s best interest to decrease, as much as possible, the size of this point, and that therefore they oughta get around to delivering on all the promises of reform Alexander II had liked to go around making back at the beginning of his reign. So the Supreme Commission, and later the Ministry of the Interior, to which L-M was transferred after the Commission was perceived to have done such a good job it didn’t need to exist anymore, kept doing really surprising things like getting conservative ministers dismissed and abolishing the secret police[26] and suggesting delicately to the tsar that maybe what the government really needed was something called a General Commission, which would consist of an assortment of political consultants to the tsar who would – here it comes – be elected to their posts by representatives of the larger cities. Loris-Melikov wanted to start voting. Coming from a government that had in the past few years otherwise become vigorously draconian and emergency-powers oppressive, this was absolutely bizarre.

Meanwhile, back at the top-secret revolutionary headquarters of the People’s Will, Sofya Perovskaya and her One True Love Alexander Zhelyabov[27] plotted what was to be the seventh and final attempt on the tsar’s life. This was another tunneling deal – this time from the basement of a fake cheese shop – and came complete with fail-safes: if the mine laid underneath the street didn’t work, the People’s Will had not one but two backup assassins standing by with throwable bombs. It was going to be very difficult for the tsar to escape. Then, on February 27, 1881, Zhelyabov was arrested; the People’s Will went into a kind of grim panic. They were going to have to hurry up, they decided. Like kill-the-guy-tomorrow hurry up. So on the first of March, down the street came the tsar – but he didn’t use the right street[28], and then he didn’t use the right street on the way back either, and so Sofya Perovskaya had to send the bomb-throwers after the carriage, which turned out to be a special bomb-proof carriage Alexander had been given by Napoleon III, and which therefore did not collapse when the first assassin threw his bomb, but which did nevertheless stop, because a bunch of people who’d just been standing around were now collectively in a very bad way, and then Alexander II[29] got out for a quick ministering-to-the-wounded thing, and then the second bomber walked up, and, well.

Now, here’s the thing. The members of the People’s Will were no more stupid than they were deranged or psychotic. Many of them were, after all, the same people who’d argued so eloquently and shone so beatifically in the courtroom in 1879. They weren’t even especially bloodthirsty; they genuinely believed that the death of the tsar was the only path to liberty. And not one of their seven attempts on Alexander II’s life was hasty or underthought. And they were very clear about their motives: after the assassination, the Executive Committee of the People’s Will issued an official petition to Alexander’s son and heir, Alexander III. If the new tsar “turned to the people” – if he finally abolished the secret police, if he instituted the full economic reforms his father hadn’t, if he pardoned his father’s assassins[30], the People’s Will would disband, and its members would renounce violence, “which we practice with sad necessity”, and go into legitimate politics.

Well, that didn’t happen. Painfully enough, it turned out that Alexander II had committed to sign Loris-Melikov’s elected-committee thing the very morning of March 1 – that he had, in fact, en route to his death, been talking in the carriage about how this was almost certainly going to end up leading to a constitutional monarchy for Russia[31]. One of the first things Alexander III did – with the smug backing of his ultraconservative childhood tutor, Pobedonostsev – was tell the Ministry of the Interior that they could just forget about this ridiculous election thing. And pretty much everything else he did until his death in 1894 was along the same lines: the reversal of the liberal policies that he and Pobedonostsev believed had half-ruined Russia and caused his father’s death.[32]

But none of this could really have come as a surprise, could it? We’re talking here about a hereditary monarchy, with an heir who’d been publicly named a long time ago, and whose connection to the more conservative wing of Russian government wasn’t a secret either. What did the People’s Will think would happen when Alexander II died? The assassination was a very neat transfer of power from an unusually liberal if conflicted monarch to a militant conservative whose first act as ruler would be dealing with the news that his father had just been murdered. Is there any perspective from which this doesn’t look like a really, really bad call?

Well, yes, there’s this one: that the assassination of the tsar wasn’t the coldhearted bit of strategizing its slow-motion enactment suggested. That the people digging sloppy, dangerous tunnels through the mud, listening to the trains barrel overhead, wondering if they’d just fall right through the roof, weren’t calm and clear-eyed at all. That they were in fact terribly angry – angry and sad and frustrated and consumed day-in-day-out by the kind of passion we usually associate with fifteen-second periods in the midst of fistfights. That what they’d read, and what they’d seen, and what they’d heard, and where they’d been – in the fields with the stubborn, shrugging peasants; in the pitch-black solitary chambers of Petersburg prisons; in the dock before the screaming, panicked judges – had filled them with the kind of exhausted fury that just ends up looking like total calm. That Alexander II’s murder wasn’t the carefully executed political strategy of a meticulous and cerebral band of intellectuals, but a crime of passion.

So if that’s it – and I’m not saying outright that it was – then the last little filigree of irony int the disaster of late-Imperial Russia is this one: Nechayev was right. If what you really want is revolution, you don’t hold earnest meetings or read the Bible or go out and talk to peasants. What you do is destabilize. What you do is inject so much fear and uncertainty and dissatisfaction into the system that it starts spitting it back at itself. You get people arrested who should stay free and get people killed who should stay alive. You have no friends and no loves and no saints and no real convictions; you hold nothing sacred and you are loyal to nothing. Except the Revolution. The Revolution you probably won’t live to see, because the seeds you plant will take so very long to crack, and the plants that sprout will take so very long to bloom. So it’s possible that Sergei Nechayev, so fond of making himself out to be a magician, a ghost, a revolutionary spirit impossible to contain or block or imprison, really was in charge of everything – that he really did keep on leading from the damp lonely innards of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Because he didn’t have to do anything, to lead. The machine he built would lead itself.

And where did it lead itself? Well, to 1896, when a planning accident at Nicholas II’s coronation ended up killing 1300 people. To 1905, when Nicholas’ soldiers fired upon a peaceful worker’s demonstration, and the people of Russia finally changed their minds about the tsar. To 1912, when the population of St. Petersburg became convinced that the country was being run by a sociopathic hypnotist named Grigorii Rasputin. And, finally, to 1917, when all the old dreams came true: when there was finally nothing left in the closed loop of Russian politics but poison, and when the machine finally sputtered into silence. Maybe Nechayev really was in control all the way up to that year.

But after that – well, he always said his job was destruction. Creation he’d leave to someone else; surely someone would come along. And someone did. Which is a different, longer, and bloodier story.

Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s drift to revolution, 1825-1917 (Viking, 1976).

Freeze, Gregory L.. From Supplication to Revolution: A Documentary Social History of Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Siljak, Ana. Angel of Vengeance: The “Girl Assassin,” the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World (St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

Yarmolinksy, Avrahm. Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (Cassell & Company, 1957).

1. Often how they’ll cover themselves is, they’ll say List Some Causes Of Such-And-Such, which is technically answerable even if it’s a little like saying List Some People Who Are Currently Alive.

2. And possibly also the eighteenth century – see?

3. Complete with small wire-rimmed glasses.

4. Leftist intellectuals from this era liked to call themselves shestidesiatniki – “people of the sixties” – which can inspire all kinds of spooky speculation about whether there’s something about the number 60 that makes people like to define themselves by it.

5. Which had just lost a major and majorly embarrassing war, partly because its weaponry and technology and economic and logistic infrastructure was, by 1860s standards, totally useless.

6. Alexander’s famous line re: this, kind of the Russian equivalent of Lincoln’s if-I-could-preserve-the-union-by-freeing-no-slaves bit, is “It is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above than to wait for it to begin abolishing itself from below.”

7. One petition, from a group of landowners in the province of Tver, took the standard Russian tack[a] of assuming that anything wrong or oppressive or non-ideal in Russian governmental policy was not the fault of the tsar but instead the unfortunate result of the presence of corrupt and manipulative bureaucrats between the tsar and the people he was trying, God bless him, to help. (“Sire! We consider it our sacred duty to state frankly that between us and Your Imperial Majesty’s Government there exists a strange misunderstanding that prevents the realization of Your good intentions!”) In the mouths of Tver’s nobles this may well have been a tactful bit of rhetoric, but a lot of peasants really felt this way – the tsar was their divine protector, their representative, stymied by the insidious machinations of unworthy subordinates.

a. Standard until 1905, at least, which we’ll get to.

8. Nicholas was an army kid, and liked drilling armies and coming up with new ways to expand and control armies, and ran the state basically like an army, which was why it was so particularly embarrassing when the only major war Russia fought under his watch ended in thorough defeat.

9. Probably the most spectacular one concerns a guy named Anton Petrov, who not only denounced the “false freedoms” of the Emancipation Act to crowds of sympathetic peasants but told them that he was actually in possession of a top secret for-Anton’s-eyes-only missive from the tsar, outlining his political paralysis as per Note 7 supra and charging Anton Petrov with carrying out his will on the ground. (Petrov added that the landowners had also been responsible for the death of Nicholas I.) This got about 5000 peasants behind A.P., who holed up in a barn when troops arrived; a few hundred of his followers closed ranks around him and refused to give him up. This story does not end well.

10. Fathers and Children[a] was published in 1862, and was arguably the first of a handful of novels whose influence on Russian culture and politics was so tectonically profound it’s almost impossible for us to understand it. It isn’t just that we live in a modern age where radio and movies and T.V. and the Internet have eclipsed the cultural importance of literature; it’s that the cultural importance of literature in the West was never as great as it was in mid-19c Russia[b]. Even when F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrecking hotel rooms like a true rock star while millions of fans salivated for his next Saturday Evening Post story, he had nothing sociopolitically on Turgenev, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Lev Tolstoy, or Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Books like Fathers and Children (and Notes From Underground, and The Devils, and What To Do?) weren’t “political literature” – they were politics. In an autocratic state like Alexander II’s Russia, in which political appointments and decisions were totally disconnected from the people but in which written dissent was tolerated, popular politics simply migrated to the library. So the following note, which is very long and will look to the average Westerner way more like removed nonpolitical literary criticism than like anything connected to the whole radicalization-of-Russia topic, and which is therefore optional, is nonetheless actually very much about politics, about politics in a way maybe no other subject could really be about politics.

The three most important Russian novels of the latter 19c are probably Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, Chernyshevsky’s What To Do?[c], and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. From a literary perspective[d], two of these are masterpieces and one of them is very, very bad. The first masterpiece, Turgenev’s, is about an aristocratic Russian family whose son Arkady comes home from college accompanied by a friend named Bazarov who is basically every college friend parents hope their kids leave at college: an arguer, a mocker, a self-professed nihilist, a frog-dissection-obsessive, and (at least tacitly) a revolutionary. Arkady’s dad, who’s a bit of a casualty of fashion (the kind of dad who today would ask what the kids at school are listening to, and actually want to know), is shallowly impressed by Bazarov’s nihilism, which is after all very Now; but Arkady’s uncle Pavel can’t stand the guy, and is horrified by everything he says, and basically walks open-mouthed into every sly Socratic trap Bazarov sets up over various dinners, and ends up expressing his antipathy in the only way befitting a character in a Russian novel: he challenges Bazarov to a duel. The duel’s ostensibly for the honor of a lady but is really for the honor of a generation, and Pavel doesn’t do that well, although he does live. Which is more than you can say for Bazarov, who rather suddenly contracts typhus from a dissection accident, and dies, and is mourned, which Turgenev intends as a quiet rebuke to Bazarov’s smug materialism: he does live on after death, in the thoughts and feelings of the people who loved him.

As often happens with books that paint extremely compelling pictures of people they do not actually support[e], this last rebuking-materialism part seems to have been quietly ignored by the legions of young Russians influenced by Fathers and Children. Thanks to Bazarov, the word nihilist became both the official self-designation of a new group of materialist, socialist, populist youth and the scare-word deployed by reactionaries in demonization of this same youth. (The irony of which was that Bazarovism wasn’t nihilism at all – Bazarov and his followers believed passionately in all kinds of stuff – but simply a particularly aggressive strain of what we’d now call secular humanism. Herzen called them “apostles”, which is better.) Young men even started dressing like Bazarov.

The second masterpiece, Notes From Underground, is the more reactionary Dostoyevsky’s spin on the Bazarov archetype, whom he paints in a book-length in-character monologue as neurotic and self-absorbed and spiritually paralyzed. Dostoyevsky, an ex-radical from the Nicholas I days[f], had mellowed a bit by the 60s, and been disturbed both by the rise of Bazarovism and by the insane success of the third, worst, and most important of the three books, Chernyshevsky’s What To Do?.

What To Do? is about 600 pages long, depending of course on your edition, and ostensibly narrates the political and romantic adventures of a handful of young Russians seeking the ideal direction for themselves and their country. What it actually narrates – not only through dramatization but through innumerable direct addresses to “the sapient reader”, meaning the reader who agrees with Chernyshevsky – is the political philosophy, psychosexual theories, predictions for the future, and taste in architecture of N.G. Chernyshevsky, which turn out to be, respectively: rational egoism, free love, socialist utopia, and lots of brushed aluminum. The freethinking Vera Pavlovna, betrothed to some drip who’s not pushing civilization towards its gloriously inevitable apotheosis at all, leaves him for the more enlightened Dmitri Lopukhov, whom she subsequently leaves for another guy (w/ Lopukhov’s blessing, because of the free love thing) while at the same time starting a sewing commune and admiring a fourth guy named Rakhmetov, who does things like sleep on a bed of nails just to see if he can, and is always engaged in Rocky-esque training for what he ominously calls “the future”, and is totally hip and plugged in and Ready For What’s Coming, and who understands what Vera slowly comes to understand, viz., that enlightened self-interest, total clinical dispassionate selfishness, is the only way to live a life and the only useful way to order society, and will soon lead (via a process that Chernyshevsky, 150 years before South Park’s Underpants Gnomes left the step between “Collect Underpants” and “Profit” blank, actually omits in favor of an ellipsis) to a socialist utopia populated by happy members of sewing communes and constructed entirely of the aforementioned brushed aluminum and proudly ushered in by warriors of the revolution like Rakhmatov, whom Vera admiringly calls a “sombre monster”, as in “a man with an ardent love of goodness cannot help but be a sombre monster”[g].

Well, you can imagine. Chernyshevsky wrote What To Do? from jail, and within a few years of its publication it had become the kind of book people who had given up all their other possessions kept strapped to the inside of their peasant tunic. At the same time, established literary critics, even the ones who weren’t acting out of ideological interest one way or the other, were writing over and over again that by any basic aesthetic or literary rubric the book totally sucked. Almost a century later, Vladimir Nabokov was still reserving a special vintage of his inimitable bile for Chernyshevsky, who besides being one of the ideological sources of Bolshevism (of which Nabokov was not a fan) was the ur-practitioner of a very un-Nabokov approach to literature: the subsumption of image and character and synesthetic impressionism into ideology. Put less technically: Nabokov liked stories; Chernyshevsky liked ideas.

Which is the aesthetic debate that was in 1860s Russia really a political debate, and which is (as promised, way up there at the beginning of this note) in some ways the heart of the whole 19th-century young-Russian radicalization process. These were people so consumed with and fired by ideas that a book like What To Do? would have been more profound to them than all the limpid perfect sentences Nabokov ever wrote. The critics who were appalled at the book’s cult were missing something simple: it wasn’t that the Chernyshevsky fans had bad taste in writing; it was that they didn’t care about writing. What they cared about was thinking, and thinking was what Vera Pavlovna and Chernyshevsky and an uncontradicted Bazarov gave them.[h] And What To Do? gave them something else, too; it gave them something new to care about. Thinking was all very well, but Rakhmatov, the sombre monster, didn’t waste time on it. He was a man of action. And after Chernyshevsky, Bazarov’s brood of young nihilists began themselves to turn slowly into men – and women – of action.

a. Which is usually translated as Fathers and Sons, but the Russian is Отцы и дети, Ottsi i deti, which is tongue-trippingly much nicer than Fathers and Children but which nonetheless does mean that, and not Fathers and Sons.

b. The closest analogue is probably rock-n-roll in the 1960s, but even that falls short.

c. Another translation nitpick: this is usually rendered as What Is To Be Done?, but in Russian it’s Что делать?, Chto delat’?, which is the interrogative pronoun “what” followed by the infinitive “to do” followed by a question mark, and which does not seem to me to admit all that much ambiguity.

d. Well, mine.

e. Think A Clockwork Orange, or American Psycho, or for that matter Notes From Underground – although Turgenev’s book is better than all of these (particularly American Psycho) at sketching its characters and its environments specifically and deftly enough for them to be inhabited and animated, so Bazarov isn’t just a cardboard stand-in for a political ideology but a real breathing bleeding person, which both helps and hinders the book’s refutation of his ideas with the he’s-loved-after-death tactic, since he’s (A) so likable when alive and (B) so missable when dead.

f. And veteran of this whole ghastly ordeal in which he was arrested for participation in a revolutionary circle, sentenced to death by firing squad, blindfolded, shouted “Ready… Aim…” at, and then not shot after all, just to teach him a lesson, one from which some of his fellow convicts did not emerge with their sanity.

g. Some of you may have felt a bell ring somewhere in the midst of this paragraph. Maybe it was “enlightened self-interest” that did it. Do not dismiss this bell. To the modern reader, the true irony of What To Do? – the brick-sized Bible of 19th-century Russia’s burgeoning socialist movement, the book that Lenin read five times in one summer – is that it is in so many ways totally indistinguishable from The Fountainhead. Which actually tells us something deep and strange about ideology itself: that Ayn Rand, traumatized as a young girl by the horror of the Bolshevik regime, could emigrate to America, adopt its capitalist ethos so frenziedly she seemed at times to believe that anyone who did anything nice for anyone else should basically be gassed immediately, and then write a huge long book dramatizing this pathologically reactionary capitalism that was in virtually every key way identical to a huge long book dramatizing what she was reacting to is either the most amazing coincidence ever or very convincing evidence that way out there on the furious passionate edge of radicalism it maybe doesn’t matter all that much what you believe.

h. But then of course the reverse of all this is that books like What To Do? don’t just communicate ideas but privilege them, in their coldness, over everything else: they fire their readers up over abstractions while pulling them away from the messy and complex and ideologically contradictory nature of real people, understanding and accepting and loving whom is in the Nabokovian/Tolstoyian[*] school the whole spiritual project of fiction. So brainy tracts like Chernyshevsky’s actually end up looking impoverished, not just spiritually or morally but intellectually, because their cognition ends at the neat and easy level of Big Ideas.

* Note that we’ve cited none of Tolstoy’s novels as “important”, even though he’s a huge-deal novelist, even though he easily had a greater permanent effect on the world literary scene than Chernyshevsky and Turgenev and probably than Dostoyevsky too, even though he was in his day a kind of popular saint with a flock of ideologically fervent disciples of his own, and even though he incidentally happens to be the present blogger’s favorite writer. This is because Tolstoy’s compassionate impulse, his work ethic re: getting inside his character’s skins, makes his work way too complicated and shaded and honestly self-contradictory to birth a confident movement like nihilism or Chernyshevsky-worship. No matter how much Tolstoy himself may have wanted to birth such a movement, and no matter how conflicted he may have been over his own compassion, and no matter how carefully he tried to elide complexity and doubt from his later work (with little success), and no matter how carefully the very serious young people who called him a saint ignored everything in his work that contradicted the ideology they chose to extract, he simply lacked the demagogic confidence that would have made his work “important” in the sense we’re using here.

11. Whom believe me we’ll come back to.

12. The word for which in Russian also implied “consecrated”.

13. A good mythological analogue here is Loki – or, from more recent mythology, the Joker – except that those kinds of purely anarchic tear-downers don’t have any kind of motivation except perversity, whereas Nechayev was at least ostensibly expecting something to be built on the ashes he left. Except that the more one reads about Nechayev the more one suspects that this was a guy whose temperament preceded his politics.

14. This isn’t necessarily as simple as being a mole, or an agent provocateur. There’s a whole weird class of person in late-Imperial Russia who double-dutied for the police and the revolutionaries without ever quite picking one or the other. Some of these started as police informants; some of them started as revolutionary infiltrators of the police; at least one of them (Georgy Gapon[a]) was also a priest, which seems to this admittedly pampered 21st-century Western kid like at least one job too many.

a. (organizer of a huge and disastrous workers’ march in St. Petersburg in January of 1905, the hideous end of which was the last straw in the destruction of the whole tsar-as-frustrated-benefactor myth mentioned in Note 7a supra)

15. The word being translated here is narodnik, which (cf. earlier Nicky’s What essay Mir v okeanye) has all sorts of weird nationalist/imperial/spiritual implications that are in many ways peculiarly Russian, and to which neither populist nor any other English word or phrase of sufficiently few syllables to avoid annoying prose-obstruction really does justice, and which will therefore henceforth be rendered in Russian. Because even though the Russian word doesn’t communicate its real meaning to us, it at least communicates its failure to communicate.

16. At first the idea was that these kids would pretend to be peasants themselves, just peasants from other villages than the peasants they were talking to, but after a lot of city-slicker-goes-rural heartwarming-family-movie moments re: pitchforks, bedtimes, livestock, etc., a lot of the narodniki just came clean.

17. These days historians sometimes call these richer peasants kulaks, which is a retroactive appellation and hopelessly infected by ideology and probably not very useful. The Russian word kulak means “fist”, as in “tight-fisted”, and it was first assigned to the beneficiaries of imperial Russia’s first and last major agrarian reform, instituted by prime minister Pyotr Stolypin in the early 1900s. The reforms – which never got the chance to run their course, as they were interrupted first by World War I and then by the Revolution – were designed both to hasten the much-delayed modernization of rural Russia and to create from its inhabitants something resembling a strong middle class, one capable of mobility and entrepreneurship and technological awareness and all the other characteristics of capitalism that had allowed dinky-looking Western states like Britain to outstrip the agricultural production of the inconceivably more massive and populous Russia. The reforms were in place just long enough for some peasants indeed to move up economically – but these were of course the craftiest peasants, the ones best cut out for the brutality of capitalism, and the ones easiest to demonize if you happened to be a socialist. So after 1917 the kulaks weren’t the vanguard of a stable middle class in Russia; they were the parasitic, villainous Enemy, and kulak in a way meant enemy of the state, and it only made sense to apply the word also to the handful of not-quite-as-poor-as-the-other-peasants peasants of the pre-Stolypin years.

18. One of the tragedies of what eventually happens to Alexander II is that it retards even his halting brand of reform so severely that it takes Russia over a century to put ideas like “openness” back into practice: the Russian word for “openness” is glasnost.

19. And still is, right down to the controversy: cf. the recent brouhaha over the trial of Kahli Sheik Mohammed for a contemporary example of state fear of exactly what happened to the Russian government in 1878.

20. Especially the women, some of whom were very pretty indeed, and glowed all over with the dew of righteous bravery, and whom court officials kept unprofessionally trying to “rescue”.

21. Which was an unusual one – a prototype, based on certain Western European models, for a new kind of clean and spacious and humane jail, and which was controversial all by itself.

22. Which Trepov realized, and which he attempted to contain by going to Count Palen, the minister of justice, before the flogging was carried out and asking if it maybe wouldn’t be better to cancel it – but then unfortunately Palen was himself sick of the culture-of-approval going on in his prison, and urged the vacillating Trepov to stick to his guns, a decision for which Palen’s assistant, a guy named Anatolii Fedorovich Koni (who by a very weird coincidence was later promoted to Chief Justice of St. Petersburg and thus oversaw the trial of Vera Zasulich), chastised his boss with this grim gem: “It is worse than a crime. It is a mistake.”

23. The revolutionaries had become so organized by this point that the perpetrators of several Petersburg assassinations were actually borne to safety by the same horse, which was kept secretly in a stable “for just such occasions”. Later, the big symbol of Land and Liberty’s disapproval of Alexander Solovyov’s goofy attempted regicide was that they didn’t let him use the horse.

24. Including Sofya Perovskaya, who by the way was the daughter of one of General Trepov’s predecessors as Governor of St. Petersburg, which gives you an idea of how thoroughly mainstream and aristocratic the whole revolutionary thing was.

25. Though the guy who got a janitorial job in the Winter Palace, and became best friends with everyone there, and did weird things like steal “mementos” from the tsar’s desk when he wasn’t looking, and smuggled a huge box of dynamite into his room a tiny bit at a time, and finally blew up most of the basement but almost totally missed the dining room where the tsar turned out not to be eating anyway, probably deserves a special mention.

26. Or at least abolishing the Third Section, and quietly moving the secret police to an arm of the Ministry of the Interior – but, you know, it’s how you look that counts.

27. This was one of those deals where the girl is Iron and Indomitable and Contemptuous Of The Vacillating Weakness Of Men and Will Not Be Chained Down By Any Man Unless Of Course The Man Is Alexander Zhelyabov, Who Is Beyond Dreamy And For Whom She Will Do Anything.

28. It later came out that he had promised his wife to avoid “that peculiar cheese shop”.

29. (whose consistently admirable and at all points except this one useful attitude throughout the entire era of assassinations had been to work as hard as possible on being brave and forthright and scarily unfazed by everything, i.e., his reaction to Solovyov’s firing at him was to run up to the guy and ask him what he was doing)

30. This really seems like pushing it, and maybe reveals something else about ideologues: when you’re devoted to a cause it’s difficult for you to imagine someone not being able to see why it was totally necessary and just to blow up his dad.

31. Which he opposed, being an heir to the very old and very hallowed autocratic tradition that would later keep Nicholas II from giving his own elected committee, the Duma, the kind of power they would have needed to actually stop the spiral that undid the Empire.

32. He had his own assassination attempts to contend with, too, including one that ended with the execution of a guy named Aleksandr Ulyanov, who was greatly mourned by his younger brother Vladimir. In 1902, Vladimir Ulyanov started calling himself Lenin.

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1 Response to “Sombre Monsters – or, How to Blow Up a Country”


  1. 1 Brian May 15, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I enjoyed the endnotes very much. As well as the rest of the piece.


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